Adam Schiller with members of the Maasai in Kajiado County, Kenya. (Courtesy of Adam Schiller)

Earlier this week, Redditors were given a pretty neat opportunity: Two leaders from the Maasai tribe, a seminomadic people living in Western Kenya, signed on to do an “Ask Me Anything.” Redditors asked about the standard stuff: religious practices, diet, what people in the village do for fun. And then, inevitably, one user asked the chiefs to describe their favorite “kind of Internet porn.”

“They don’t believe it and don’t know what it is,” the chiefs’ interlocutor replied — to a giddily gleeful audience. “Don’t think or know about pornography. They are asking is it normal in America.”

The assembled Redditors went wild. It was their crowning achievement. They concluded that they had, in what may have been the Redditiest moment ever Reddited, introduced the concept of Internet porn to a culture that had not encountered it.

But what actually happened is slightly more complicated … and truthfully, more fascinating. Chief Joseph and Assistant Chief Leshan had, in fact, seen Internet porn before, because data-enabled mobile phones have actually become a huge part of even their remote, disconnected community.

As distant as the Maasai may seem from the modern world — the tribe has access to neither running water nor electricity, and many of the questions in the AMA centered on customs like drinking goats’ blood and circumcision without anesthetics — they do increasingly have access to forums like Reddit.

As Adam Schiller, the 24-year-old volunteer who set up the AMA, put it: “Imagine having porn before you have power.”

Schiller is currently living and working in Kajiado County, Kenya, teaching sex-ed to a group of teenage kids as part of a 10-week volunteer program through the aid group Voluntary Service Overseas.

Since arriving there from the United Kingdom in early June, he has turned to the Internet a few times to try to help the village he’s staying in: Earlier this month, he started a Just Giving campaign to raise money for a water tank and building supplies at a local school. Later, he decided to attempt an AMA to raise awareness about the Maasai and publicize his fundraising efforts.

Like most Internet users in Kenya, Schiller logs online from a mobile phone. Service is intermittent, and speeds are generally pretty slow. In the Masaai village where he’s staying, Schiller said, most people have cellphones, and some are beginning to get smartphones, as well. Between the fall of 2015 and spring of 2016, mobile data subscriptions in Kenya grew by almost 4 percent. There are now 24.7 million people logging online through their cellphones, in a country of 44.4 million.


A map illustrating the total number of Internet users in a country (size of the country) as well as the percentage of the population that has Internet access (shade of the country). (Oxford Internet Institute)

Still, most people in rural areas like the village where Schiller is staying are not terribly familiar with Western social networks — a fact those networks are, incidentally, working very hard to change. To persuade chiefs Joseph and Leshan to do the interview, Schiller framed Reddit as “a global baraza,” or meeting.

“I explained to Chief Joseph and Leshan that people across the world wanted to know more about their community,” Schiller said, “and may even help them in the process.”

There does remain some debate as to whether the Internet’s impact on indigenous communities is entirely good: In a 2011 paper that analyzed growing access in Nigeria, three Nigerian scholars pointed out that it could be used to erode traditional languages and values (something Reddit surely would have been accused of, if the whole porn-introduction thing were true).

But by and large, there appears to be a strong consensus that Internet access is enormously empowering. A number of indigenous groups have used it to preserve and promote their cultures, the Ethnos Project research group has found, and it’s become an important tool in public health, education and governance. Just as important, the Internet has allowed isolated communities to raise global awareness. Just two years ago, the Tanzanian branch of the Maasai managed to fend off a government land grab using, among other things, an online petition on the site Avaaincz.org. It earned well over 2 million signatures from all over the world.

Schiller’s online efforts have also paid off, albeit on a smaller scale: As of this writing, Redditors have donated 1,000 pounds, or roughly $1,300, to the village’s school-building project. On Reddit, many have also commented that they appreciated the insight into Maasai beliefs and customs.

“Traditionally, part of the job of development organisations like VSO has been to tell the stories of the people who benefit from our work,” said Emma Harrison, the organization’s head of global communications. “Adam has done something incredibly powerful — he’s cut us out as the middle man, and we love him for it. In a world where smartphones and Internet access are connecting people in new and exciting ways, our role is shifting from controlling the conversation, to simply making the introduction.”

As for the porn thing, well — one imagines that VSO is relieved not to have made that intro personally. Prior to the AMA, the chiefs had seen porn on someone else’s smartphone, Schiller said. Moreover, they weren’t really into it.

“They thought it was fake and not real life, like a cartoon,” he said. “They were really intrigued when I told them it was real. They inquired whether people in America really get paid to be recorded having sex.”

It’s the sort of inquiry that will keep coming up as rural, indigenous communities are exposed to more and more of the Internet. If the Maasai were puzzled by porn, they’d best brace for the rest of Reddit.

Liked that? Try these: